Saving Private Bixby
Spielberg's movie, Saving Private Ryan is a brilliant W.W.II fictional story about a platoon of battle weary American soldiers ordered to risk their lives scouring European battlefields so that a single downed private can be found and returned home to his mother. For, she is a woman who must endure news that her other three sons have all recently perished in battle. General Marshall explains his orders by quoting one of Abraham Lincoln's most famous letters-a tragedy that should never be repeated. The existing antique manuscript reveals much about, not only the velveteen/steel character of its author, but the Civil War itself.
To Mrs. Lydia Bixby
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
Dear Madam, - I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.
I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully, Mrs. Bixby,
Antique manuscripts, notes, and diaries are valued primarily on their content. Lincoln's letter is priceless, not only because it is beautifully written and signed by a great man, but because of its unusual and historic significance.
Most early letters you'll come across in attic boxes and estate sales will have little value. Millions of love letters, legal documents, and other ho-hum accounts have been saved over the years. The typewriter came into prominent use in the later years of the 19th century. Early notes were quilled on "laid paper," that can be identified by its leathery feel and by holding up to a light. Early paper was made by drying of sheets of soaked bark pulp on a screen mesh. Mesh lines and an identifiable maker's "watermark" are normally evident.
An old letter or diary with no substantial content will be worth only a few dollars. A manuscript that makes mention of a famous person or event will fetch a little more. If that manuscript was written and signed by say, Franklin, Einstein, Billy the Kid, Hemingway, President McKinley, Thomas Edison, Jackie Robinson, or Clara Barton, it can have significant value. Finally, if that document is a first hand account by a famous person that reinforces or adds to our knowledge of history, it can be worth $20,000 or more.
I'll have more to say on the subject next week. Until then, remember that monetary value is not a true measurement of great antiques. Such objects not only open the door to yesterday, they help to shape tomorrow. Consider the importance of a single-page letter quilled by our 16th president. Mr. Lincoln's gentle words have not only recorded war's suffering for all time, they have inspired a movie so true and painful in content, that maybe, just maybe, a future war may someday be avoided.